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Imagining a nation? Not in Sarawak

The student of politics naturally assumes that the nation state is the most natural and the most logical destination in the journey of a group of people with a shared past and a common destiny. By and large, the nation state is deemed as a rational development in the politics of a people struggling for legitimacy.

This is not always the case. In Malaysia, the idea of a people united by a common history, language and a shaped destiny has come under severe strain from the linguistic, racial and religious tensions of a divided people.

The situation is even more confusing in Sarawak, because of the diverse historical and ethnic composition of the people. There have been many pre-existing, ready-made divisions within Sarawak society, and the preoccupation with the politics of race has muddied Sarawak's political waters even further.

In his monumental work entitled 'Nations and Nationalism', famed scholar Benedict Anderson has proposed that the most basic impulse of nation-building is one centred around the imagining of 'a people', based on the people's national roots. Very often, a common language is an anchor of such an ethnic project.

In the case of Malaysia and Sarawak, much has been made of the effort to present Bahasa Malaysia as a common marker for a national sense of common belonging. But the great Bahasa Malaysia project continues to confuse students of politics in the multiracial milieu.

The population of Malaysia in general, and Sarawak in particular, is multilingual – hopelessly so, to the champions of linguistic and cultural unity.

It can be argued that the model of the nation state, after the fashion of Anderson's kinship group writ large, has never emerged in Sarawak. Anderson's model relied on the written version of a people's history, as a common vector of the feeling of fraternity. This does not apply to Sarawak because a common written history is absent in this land of many histories and cultures.

That may explain why the sense of brotherhood of a common ancestor is so hard to pinpoint in Sarawak. Sarawak has remained, stubbornly, as a land of many peoples.

In Sarawak, the closest and the most tangible social relationship is that of kinship by blood. The most important social relations are that of family ties. That necessarily limits the scope of inclusion of a large mass of people, who find it hard to relate to other people beyond their stretch of the river, or the length of their road.

This limits the power of the national group that might try to mobilise a state-wide coalition, or joint force.

An alternative coalition crucial

It can be argued that in Sarawak, the traditional political partnerships across racial and regional boundaries are the exception rather than the rule, by virtue of the limited political vision of the individual actors involved.

That is why in Sarawak, the 'rakyat' (people) is a loose term which carries far less consequence than the fellow feeling of tribesmen, that is, of a smaller group of people of common ancestry. The common term 'rakyat' will need a kind of redefinition to reassert its role in discussing state-wide politics.

The Barisan Nasional, as the supergroup with its claim on state power, is often seen as the Big Brother that can subsume the claim to represent all the groups in the state, by virtue of its hegemony on the exercise of political power in the state.

In actual fact, the BN cannot be said to be a combination of all state forces clamouring for state-wide representation. They are more a national coalition in power by default, because all the petty forces at work in the state of Sarawak do not have the legitimacy and the political command to provide political unity.
Therefore, a change of government at state level is most unlikely in the foreseeable future, because the conditions for the complete reversal of power in Sarawak are lacking in substance. The culture of politics that can enable and facilitate such an alternative government is not yet in place.

What is needed is for an alternative political alliance to take shape, and plant its roots in the arid soil of Sarawak's democracy. The formation of the Sarawak Pakatan Rakyat is the beginning of such an alternative coalition, and that is why the next general election is of crucial importance to future political developments.

Only the maturing of the political process, with the emergence of Pakatan as a viable alternative, shall determine the possibility of a two-party state. Without a viable second choice, an alternative coalition, there can be no substance in Sarawak's democracy.
SIM KWANG YANG was member of parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. He can be reached at All comments are welcomed.

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